The winner of this series will clinch the automatic bid for winning the Big West title. Also on the line are a potential national seed for Fullerton and hosting a regional for the Dirtbags.
The season for Long Beach has been a tale of three seasons. The Dirtbags played mostly home games in getting off to a 17-3 start that included series wins over Rice, Wichita State, USC and UCLA (the latter three were 3 game sweeps). Long Beach then had a lengthy road trip where they went 1-9, including series losses at Cal and Riverside, that was followed by a series loss at home to Irvine. Since losing the series to Irvine, the Dirtbags have played well in going 20-4 with sweeps of Pacific, Northridge and Cal Poly, a series win against UCSB and a series loss at UC Davis.
Long Beach returned most of their lineup from last year except for two regulars but got off to a slow start at the plate, hitting .271 in non-conference games. However, as the weather has warmed up so have the bats for the Dirtbags, who are hitting .311 in Big West games (2nd only to UCSB at .328) and 3rd in scoring in conference games. Overall, Long Beach is 7th in the conference with a .290 team average and 6th in scoring. The Dirtbags have feasted on the bottom three teams in the Big West, going 9-0 while averaging 8.4 runs per game but Long Beach has struggled against the top half of the conference, losing 3 of 4 series while going 5-7 and averaging 4.2 runs per game.
Blair Field is notorious for being one of the best pitchers parks in the country due to the spacious dimensions, damp air and wind blowing straight in from the ocean from RF. Not surprisingly, Long Beach doesn't play much long ball with 32 HR's (6th in the Big West), although they do have two of the leaders in the conference in HR's who account for 20 of their 32 HR's. Long Beach leads the Big West in walks and is the most patient team at the plate in the conference and in typical Dirtbag fashion aren't afraid to take HBP's to get on base with 59 on the season. The Dirtbags will bunt often to move runners over, ranking 3rd in the conference with 47 SAC's, but do not run much, ranking 7th in the Big West with 41 SB's.
Long Beach has struggled defensively, ranking 6th in the Big West in fielding % with 72 errors. The Dirtbags have struggled all over the diamond, making 42 errors around the infield and 13 more in the outfield. The strongest area defensively for Long Beach has been the most important one – catching. The Dirtbags have been the 2nd best team in the conference at blocking pitches, allowing only 27 WP's/PB's, and have allowed the fewest SB's in the Big West (33), so that will be a key matchup to the series with Fullerton leading the conference in SB's.
C Travis Howell (RH - .250-0-9-2) was the first team all Big West conference catcher last year after hitting .406 in conference games but he has struggled offensively this year. Defensively, it has been a different story as he has been strong behind the plate at blocking pitches, throwing out baserunners (19-37 SB's) and handling the pitching staff. Howell usually hits 7th and went 7-18 (.389) against Fullerton last season.
1B Shane Peterson (LH - .401-7-48-10) was first team all Big West last year (.327-4-40-12), including .411 in conference games, and has been one of the best hitters in the conference again this season, ranking among the conference leaders in OBP (1st), BB's (1st), AVG (2nd), SLG (3rd), HR's (7th) and RBI's (7th) and he also leads the team in SB's. Peterson usually bats cleanup and is 15-42 (.357) in his career against Fullerton.
2B Jason Tweedy (LH - .314-1-15-2) was part of the 3B platoon last year but has been converted to 2B this season and has struggled defensively, making 8 E's in 25 starts. He missed part of the season with an injury but has come back hitting well in conference games with a .328 average. Tweedy usually hits 8th and went 5-23 (.217) against Fullerton last season.
SS Danny Espinosa (Both - .319-4-35-9) was second team all Big West last season but got off to a very slow start this year. He has been hitting much better since conference play started, hitting .341 with 19 RBI's in Big West games. He also struggled defensively earlier this season, making 9 E's during non-conference games but has played better during the Big West schedule, making only 3 E's. Espinosa usually bats 5th and is 9-42 (.214) in his career against Fullerton.
3B Brandon Godfrey (LH - .246-1-20-1) is in his 4th year as a starter but in his first season at 3B and has struggled defensively, making 8 E's in 31 starts. Godfrey has missed time with injuries, which have contributed to his struggles at the plate after he hit .333 last year. He usually bats 6th and is 22-63 (.349) against Fullerton in his career.
Long Beach has seven OF's and have had to use several of the reserves recently due to injuries to two of their regular starters.
LF Steve Tinoco (RH - .297-1-23-2) was a part-time player earlier in the season but has started every Big West game and is 2nd on the team in hitting in conference games at .345 and has been hitting 3rd lately due to injuries to other OF's (usually bats 2nd when the regular lineup is playing). He was 1-5 against Fullerton last season.
FR CF Jonathon Jones (RH - .338-0-12-4) has been a solid addition to the lineup defensively as well as at the plate, usually batting leadoff and setting the table for the middle of the order. Jones has missed the past three games with a back injury and is questionable for this weekend. Jordan Casas (LH - .357 in 28 AB's) has started the past four games (3 in CF) after only starting one game this season and been a sparkplug for the offense, going 7-16.
RF Jason Corder (RH - .321-13-49-1) has been one of best power hitters in the Big West, ranking 1st in SLG %, 2nd in the conference in HR's and 6th in RBI's. Corder's 13 HR's are the most at Long Beach since the bats were deadened after the 1999 season. Corder recently suffered a broken finger that caused him to miss the last four games and he is questionable for this weekend. T.J. Mittlestaedt (LH - .210-0-13-2) started all three games at Cal Poly last weekend and batted 2nd. Mittlestaedt is one of the most patient hitters in the conference with 20 BB's in 78 AB's in Big West games last season, when he hit .389, and 19 BB's this season as a part-time starter this season.
The DH spot has rotated among several players. The players most likely to see action there if Corder and Jones are unable to play this weekend are part-time OF's Zach Barger (.196 in 51 AB's) and Rylan Sandoval (.263-2-6-5).
Long Beach traditionally has one of the best pitching staffs in the Big West and this year isn't any different. The Dirtbags are 2nd in the conference in team ERA at 3.11 and have an outstanding 3.75 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. Long Beach has easily allowed the fewest BB's in the conference and ranks 2nd in batting average allowed and fewest HR's allowed. The staff ERA has gone up to 3.75 in conference games, primarily due to the inconsistency of their Sat and Sun SP's.
Fri SP – Andrew Liebel (RHP – 8-2, 1.74 ERA, 13 starts, 104 IP, 89 H, 16 BB, 91 K, .233 BA, 8 HR's) has been one of the best pitchers in the conference this season, leading the Big West in ERA and IP and ranking 2nd in K's and 3rd in opponents BA. He has been a workhorse, pitching into the 7th inning in every start and throwing 4 complete games. After struggling against Irvine (6 2/3 IP, 13 H's, 4 R's), Liebel has only allowed 4 ER's in his last 5 starts, including CG SHO's against UC Davis and UCSB. He has done a very good job of holding runners, only allowing 4-13 SB's. The only weakness for Liebel has been occasionally leaving the ball up in the zone because he has allowed 8 HR's. In his career against Fullerton, Liebel has made 6 apps (1 start), allowing 17 H's and 10 R's (9 ER) in 18 IP.
Sat SP – Vance Worley (RHP – 6-3, 4.55 ERA, 13 starts, 87 IP, 108 H, 11 BB, 60 K, .309 BA, 6 HR's) has outstanding control but has often been too hittable this season, which has caused him problems with being consistent. He pitched well against Irvine and Northridge (1 ER allowed in each game) but pitched poorly in his other conference starts (allowing 5+ R's in the other four) before pitching well last Sunday at Cal Poly, taking a shutout into the 8th inning before allowing a 2 run HR. Worley hasn't been effective at holding runners, allowing 8-13 SB's. In his career against Fullerton, Worley has made 5 apps (1 start), allowing 12 H's and 8 R's (1 ER) in 10 IP.
Sun SP – Jake Thompson (RHP – 2-5, 4.48 ERA, 12 starts, 64 IP, 83 H, 20 BB, 40 K, .331 BA, 3 HR's) has been the Sunday SP most of the season before missing his start last week at Cal Poly after to suffering a leg injury against UCSB and is questionable for this weekend. Thompson is a FR and should be a HS SR, going to Long Beach a year earlier than expected. He has talent but similar to Worley has been too hittable and inconsistent. Thompson pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings at UC Davis, held Northridge to 1 R and kept Long Beach in the game against Irvine but struggled against Riverside, Pacific and UCSB. He has been very good at holding runners, not allowing a SB this season (0-2 SB's).
If Thompson is unable to start, midweek SP Brett Lorin (RHP – 4-3, 2.54 ERA, 13 apps, 7 starts, 39 IP, 31 H, 12 BB, 24 K, .221 BA, 2 HR) would start. Lorin was very effective at Cal Poly last Sat, allowing 1 unearned run and 5 H's in 7 IP to win the Big West pitcher of the week award. Prior to his start against Cal Poly, Lorin had not gone longer than 5 IP in any of his midweek starts.
The bullpen for Long Beach has been one of the strongest areas on the team, with eight relievers combining for a 1.96 ERA in 133 IP, which has enabled the Dirtbags to overcome the inconsistencies of Worley and Thompson. The closer is Bryan Shaw (RHP – 2-1, 1.32 ERA, 7 SV, 25 apps, 27 IP, 22 H, 5 BB, 33 K, .222 BA, 0 HR), who has been very consistent with only one blown save (at UC Davis) after struggling in that area last season. Shaw has made 8 apps against Fullerton in his career, allowing 11 H's and 7 R's (3 ER's) in 8 2/3 IP. The primary setup men are JC transfer Nick Vincent (RHP – 3-0, 1.98 ERA, 2 SV, 22 apps, 27 IP, 17 H, 5 BB, 29 K, .175 BA, 0 HR), who has good stuff and has been very tough to hit, David Roberts (RHP – 3-1, 3.71 ERA, 1 SV, 25 apps, 27 IP, 27 H, 5 BB, 24 K) and Dustin Rasco (2-0, 2.25 ERA, 20 apps, 2 starts, 20 IP, 18 H, 6 BB, 25 K, .243 BA, 0 HR). Roberts has made 7 apps against Fullerton and allowed 12 H's and 4 R's (3 ER) in 12 1/3 IP and Rasco allowed 0 R's in 2 2/3 IP against Fullerton last season. The other midweek SP/middle reliever along with Lorin has been Tyler Topp (RHP – 2-2, 3.97 ERA, 11 apps, 5 starts, 34 IP, 37 H, 9 BB, 32 K, .266 BA, 2 HR). The LHP's are Adam Wilk (0-0, 1.38 ERA, 13 apps, 13 IP, 14 H, 2 BB, 15 K, .275 BA, 0 HR) and David Markovitz (2-0, 1.08 ERA, 11 apps, 8 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 4 K).
Both Fullerton and Long Beach come into this series playing very well. Long Beach has been tough to beat at home, going 21-6 this season but Fullerton will not be intimidated by going to Blair Field because the Titans have won 4 of the last 5 series played there, including sweeping the conference matchups in 2004 and 2006, and Fullerton has gone 9-3 on the road after starting out 4-7. Also, Long Beach is a bit banged up right now which could hurt the productivity of their lineup against the Fullerton pitching staff. This figures to be a very closely contested series but Fullerton has been more consistent than Long Beach has been against the better teams in the conference and should win the series and the Big West championship if the Titans continue to play as consistently as they have been in all aspects – hitting, pitching and defense.